- The Irish Novel at the End of the Twentieth Century: Gender, Bodies and Power
Despite the sea change in Irish social and cultural life at the end of the twentieth century, and the emergence of this changed landscape in contemporary Irish literature, there has been no corresponding flood of critical work to interrogate this material. Furthermore, with some exceptions (Claire Wills 1993; Patricia Haberstroh 1996; Christine St. Peter 2000), monographs on contemporary Irish material addressing the representation of sexualities and genders have been a significant absence in the field of Irish studies. Jennifer Jeffers's critical study, The Irish Novel at the End of the Twentieth Century: Gender, Bodies, and Power presents a welcome exception to these tendencies. One aim of her study, Jeffers tells us, is "to analyze and pull apart the power matrix that has constructed the Irish woman" and to reformulate Irish identities in the light of that understanding.
Setting out to deconstruct genders, Jeffers begins by focusing on heteronormativity, examining novels by Roddy Doyle, Mary Costelloe, and Deirdre Madden, and then moves on to take work by Emma Donoghue and Colm Tóibín as exemplars of Irish lesbian and gay fiction. The central part of her study interrogates the ways in which the body has been constructed in the work of Séamus Deane, Mary Morrissey, John Banville, and Patrick McCabe. Although Jeffers explicitly disavows any one ideological perspective, saying that her work adheres to "no 'post' position," her analysis is clearly informed by contemporary theoretical and ideological frameworks. She rejects Butler's "queering" of gender norms, suggesting that this approach serves rather to validate than to deconstruct the power of a fixed gender system, by repeating and exaggerating it. Instead, Jeffers employs the work of Deleuze, who suggests a more fluid system with which to deconstruct power structures, particularly that of gender. Jeffers uses the Deleuze theory of repetition to particular effect when dealing with the work of Patrick McCabe, which is the strongest aspect of her study.
If the strength of this study is the use of contemporary theoretical and philosophical tools, its weakness is the concentration on Irish material. As Jeffers points out, important gains made by the feminist movements, among others, in Ireland in recent times have meant that the body has been a central site of struggle in Irish society. Clearly, an understanding of that struggle and its effects on our social and cultural lives is difficult to arrive at, even for those of us who have participated in and lived it. Jeffers's work might have provided the reader with a useful analysis of Irish cultural production in [End Page 505] an era of rapid change written from the position of an informed outsider. However, this study relies too heavily on the work of Irish social commentators to pick its way through the messy business of social change, rather than coming from firsthand encounters with Irish society or culture. One difficulty of working in this way is that contemporary social history changes almost as quickly as it is written down. Furthermore, relying on one informant in underresearched areas, such as Irish lesbian/gay histories or working-class women's experiences, runs the risk of privileging the one published account of an aspect of social life over that of many others.
The result is a study in which Irish social and cultural history seems to be the object of an intellectual exercise, rather than a material reality. This is compounded by the author's tendency to read social change in Ireland as an essentially modernizing (civilizing?) progression, as inher suggestion that sexual violence in the home "is the logical outcome of women's inferiority that is evidenced in their political, economic, and legal status (witness the issue of abortion and a woman's right to choose in Ireland)." It seems illogical, and it is unfortunate, that this extremely complex issue is not given any further elaboration. Assuming that "we" all know what lies behind this claim suggests that, like homophobia, which the study...